The Land of Less

Reeling from a major funding drought, vanguard performing artists downsize their dreams

Vanguard artists have downsized their dreams. Holly Hughes began her career writing plays, but wouldn't consider trying one now— "anymore than making bronze sculpture." She does group pieces when she's teaching, but otherwise sticks to monologues. "I'm too old to ask my friends to work for nothing," she says. No one goes into performance art for the money, but many who've built a respected body of work find themselves on shakier financial ground than they anticipated. Vanguard puppeteer Theodora Skipitares saw her funding slashed to 20 percent of what it had been. She's on her way to India on a Fulbright, taking "a break from the treadmill where every year you lose more money."

Postmodern dance has been particularly hard hit. Expensive to create, with almost zero commercial potential, dance now lives full time in the land of less: less touring, less commissioning, less funding, less rehearsal space. The mantra repeated most often by dance professionals, of course, is "it's always been hard." But during the last "hard" year in which the NEA was allowed to give fellowships, they still awarded $1,209,300 to 93 choreographers. A lost million-plus to individuals in such an impoverished field moves the marker from "hard" to "crisis."

Laurie Uprichard of Danspace says younger dancemakers are in pretty good shape— thanks to grants and venues that serve "emerging artists"— but "the hard part is what's after that. People in midcareer are finding it difficult to make a fully realized work at this stage in their lives." These are choreographers who are established and well-regarded— "names" in the field.

Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."
photo: Robin Holland
Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."

Bonnie Sue Stein, managing director for Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks, described how the choreographer was cutting and pasting her year together on a budget down 20 to 25 percent from last year. "We're totally dependent on international connections right now," said Stein. "If Yoshiko doesn't have a commission out of the country, it's very hard to do anything." When the Joyce Theater called to offer her a season, Chuma accepted despite the fact that she has about $18,000 budgeted, and a new piece will cost "$35,000 at least," according to Stein— if they keep it to four dancers. Luckily, Chuma also has a commission in Ireland, so she's going to create the piece there with Irish dancers, then come back and teach it to her American dancers. But she can't afford to actually work with them until a month before the show. "It's going to be nuts," says Stein.

Now, nearly 20 years into her career, Chuma faces her hardest year yet. But then, last year was the best she ever had, thanks to a project involving Japanese artists which allowed her to apply for Japanese funding.

Most dance companies are seeing these wild fluctuations in their budgets. One big commission, then nothing. One huge foundation grant, then a year so bleak you wonder if it's all over. The NEA still awards company grants, but they've shrunk and that was always the steady sustaining support. Now foundations are a much bigger part of the equation, and foundations don't want dependents. They also have very specific guidelines. As one performance artist put it, "They'll put you out to pasture, saying you're 'too emerged' or 'not emerged enough' or your work is 'not community oriented' or whatever."

Choreographer Bebe Miller saw her corporate and foundation funding plummet from $156,900 to $85,300 this year. "Last year was a big production and performance year," says Miller, "so it follows that this would be a slower time. But I've never had to take a salary cut before. This coming year feels radically different. It's kind of scary. I'm looking at not having regular studio time with a consistent group of people. But I'm also looking at suddenly having more time to go out with my video camera or travel and sketch or just feed myself in other ways, and I'm excited by that. At the same time, there's an underlying panic."

Unlike Chuma, whose School of Hard Knocks is a constantly shifting cast of characters, Miller has a company she's worked with for years. But she can't afford to work with all of them now. She'll do a duet. A new artistic challenge, she says, but one she wishes she could have chosen for artistic reasons, not budgetary ones.

Choreographer Stephen Petronio says he's often been encouraged to disband his company, but he won't consider it since he uses a very specific movement language that takes three or four years for a dancer to learn. Besides, after five lean years, this one looks better for him on the funding front. Petronio begins to list all his grants, some of them covering three years. Impressive. He also tours extensively and describes himself as "very lucky and very successful." But, as he mentions almost in passing, like no big deal: "I'm always in debt, personally. I've just begun to accept it as part of my job. Which is kind of depressing. I'm 43 years old, and I have absolutely no savings or retirement."

His company decided to give him a raise this year. His salary? "Do I have to tell you? It was $16,000. It's more now. I'm not sure I want to say how much." But later Petronio admitted that the company had given him a raise to $30,000, then couldn't pay it. "It might average out around 25. It's embarrassing."

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